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CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY NOTES.] In this chapter we have (i.) the proclamation of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4); (ii.) the preparation of the Jews for availing themselves of it (Ezra 1:5-6) and (iii.) the restoration of the sacred vessels (Ezra 1:7-11).
Ezra 1:1. Now, Heb. וְ, and] The conjunction connects the history of the restoration of the Jews with the history of the destruction of their capital and kingdom, as in 2 Chronicles 36:22. In the first year of Cyrus] i.e. the first year of his rule over Babylon, which was 536 B.C. Cyrus, כּוֹרֶשׁ is the Hebrew for the ancient Persian Kurus, Greek Κῦρος. “As to the meaning of the name,” says Fuerst, “the ancients have already observed that it is an expression for the sun. The sun was called in old Persian Khor, Khur. ֶשׁ is the sign of the Persian nominative s or ush. In cuneiform inscriptions the name is Khurush.” Persia] “פַּרַם signifies in Biblical phraseology the Persian Empire (comp. Daniel 5:28; Daniel 6:8, &c.)”—Keil. That the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah] &c. The prophecy referred to is in Jeremiah 25:11-12; Jeremiah 29:10. The seventy years began in the fourth year of Jehoiakim, when Nebuchadnezzar first took Jerusalem and carried Daniel and others, with part of the vessels of the house of God, to Babylon (2 Kings 23:36 to 2 Kings 24:4; 2 Chronicles 36:5-8; Jeremiah 46:2; Daniel 1:1-2). This was the year 606 B.C. And, as we have seen, the first year of the rule of Cyrus over Babylon was 536 B.C., which completes the seventy years. The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus] i.e. God inspired within him the desire and the determination (comp. 1 Chronicles 5:26; 2 Chronicles 21:16; Haggai 1:14). Made a proclamation] Margin: “Caused a voice to pass.” The expression signifies to make known by heralds (comp. Exodus 36:6; 2 Chronicles 30:5; chap. Ezra 10:7; Nehemiah 8:15). And put it also in writing] Schultz: “And also (made known) by writing.” In addition to the proclamation by heralds, Cyrus issued written edicts.
Ezra 1:2. All the kingdoms of the earth] These words, which are not to be taken literally, “are explained, from the wide extent of the Persian Empire. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he had already subjugated to himself almost the entire eastern Asia, even to the Indian Ocean (according to Berosus in Josephus, c. Ap.). Afterwards he pressed southward also, and entered even into Egypt and Ethiopia.”—Schultz. He hath charged me] &c. “It is a reasonable conjecture,” says Rawlinson, “that, on the capture of Babylon, Cyrus was brought into personal contact with Daniel, and that his attention was drawn by that prophet to the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 44:24-28; Isaiah 45:1 seq.) Cyrus probably accepted this prophecy as a ‘charge’ to rebuild the Temple.”
Ezra 1:3. All His people] Not Judah only, but also the descendants of the ten tribes. He is the God which is in Jerusalem] does not mean that His presence was confined to that place, but that He had chosen it as the chief seat of His worship (comp. Nehemiah 1:9, last clause; Psalms 48:1-2; Psalms 132:13-14).
Ezra 1:4. And whosoever remaineth] &c. Schultz: “And as for every one of the survivors” (comp. Nehemiah 1:2; Haggai 2:3). The men of his place] signifies those who were not Israelites. Help him] Margin: “Heb. lift him up.” Both Keil and Schultz give the meaning “to assist.” Goods] Fuerst: “Movable property.” Schultz: “Here perhaps clothing or tents.” Beside the freewill offering] &c. i.e. in addition to the gifts intended for the rebuilding of the Temple.
Ezra 1:5. With all] &c. Keil would render this, “in short,” or, “namely, all whose spirit,” &c. He says, “the לְ in לְכל serves to comprise the remaining persons, and may therefore be rendered by, in short, or namely.” Many elected to remain in Babylon.
Ezra 1:6. All they that were about them] both their heathen neighbours and the Jews who preferred to remain in Babylon. Strengthened their hands] The idea is correctly expressed in the margin: “that is, helped them.”
Ezra 1:7. The vessels of the house of the Lord] &c. Most probably those mentioned in 2 Chronicles 36:7, and Daniel 1:2.
Ezra 1:8. Mithredath] According to Rawlinson, the Persian is Mithradata, and is made up of Mithra, “the sun-god,” and data past part. of da, “to give,” and signifies “given by Mithra.” ’ Sheshbazzar] is the Chaldee name of Zerubbabel. The etymology and meaning of the name are uncertain. The prince of Judah] He was of the royal family of Judah (1 Chronicles 3:19; Matthew 1:12), and was the recognised head of that tribe at this time.
Ezra 1:9-10] The usual names for the sacred vessels are not used here, and consequently there is much uncertainty as to their meaning.
Ezra 1:11. Five thousand and four hundred] This total is more than double the numbers which are given in detail in Ezra 1:9-10. The statement of Keil may be correct: “The difference between the two statements has certainly arisen from errors in the numbers, for the correction of which the means are indeed wanting.” But we prefer the suggestion of J. H. Michaelis, “that the author passed over many subordinate vessels in the detail, but in the sum total has taken them all into consideration.”
THE FULFILMENT OF THE WORD OF THE LORD
Here are four things which claim our attention:—
I. The regard of God for His word. “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled,” &c. The word referred to is in Jeremiah 29:10 : “Thus saith the Lord, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform My good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.” The seventy years were now accomplished, and God proceeds to perform His word to His people. He is punctual in the fulfilment of His promises. “God is not a man, that He should lie” &c. (Numbers 23:19). “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.” “The word of the Lord endureth for ever.” “He abideth faithful; He cannot deny Himself.” We have in this—
1. An assurance that the prophecies and promises of His word will be fulfilled. “As the architect progressively executes every part of the plan which he had delineated, till the whole design is completed, so God in His [providence performs in due order all the prophecies of His word: a great proportion of His great scheme has already been accomplished, and revolving ages will hasten the performance of all the rest in the appointed periods.”—Scott. (a)
2. An encouragement to trust in Him. “Whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be set on high.” “Blessed is that man that maketh the Lord his trust.” See Psalms 22:4-5; Psalms 18:2. (b)
II. The mercy of God to His people. This mercy is seen—
1. In the design and effect of the captivity. The captivity was the punishment of their many sins, and especially their idolatry; and was designed to eradicate their apparently inveterate tendency to idolatry. And in this it was thoroughly successful. “Prone before on every occasion to adopt the idolatrous practices of the adjacent nations, the Jews now secluded themselves from the rest of the world, in proud assurance of their own religious superiority. The law, which of old was perpetually violated or almost forgotten, was now enforced by general consent to its extreme point, or even beyond it. Adversity endeared that of which in prosperity they had not perceived the value. Prone, the mass of them, all but the wiser and more enlightened, who worshipped Jehovah, to worship Him but as a national God, greater and mightier than the gods of other nations (a conception in itself polytheistic), they threw aside this lower kind of pride to assume that of the sole people of the One True God.” In this way the punishment of their sins was an expression of the Divine mercy to them. “He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” “Thus the Divine word of chastisement,” says Schultz, “ever goes hand in hand with His word of salvation. His chastening is in truth ever a helping; yea, His killing is a making alive. He puts to death only the dead.”
2. In the release from captivity.
(1.) As to its time. The emancipation was not delayed one moment longer than was necessary. As soon as the exile had accomplished its purpose, the Lord brought it to a conclusion. “Though He cause grief, yet will He have compassion, according to the multitude of His mercies.”
(2.) As to its meaning. It was an assurance of the Divine forgiveness of their sins. Isaiah clearly expresses this: “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God,” &c. (Isaiah 40:1-2). Their release was also the commencement of many and great blessings. “This chapter contains,” says Schultz, “nothing less than the beginning of the fulfilment of all the great and glorious prophecies with which the prophets before the exile brightened the gloomy night of the severe judgments of God—the dawning light of the grace of God in all its greatness, that would reawaken the people of God from death and the grave, and enable them to live a new and glorious life—the glorious liberty of the children of God in the fullest and highest sense. What a great revolution of affairs was now to be expected! What a fulness of salvation after the night of misfortune—the entire extent of Messianic redemption!”
III. The influence of God upon the spirit of man. “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia.”
1. The nature of this influence. “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus.” “This does not mean,” says Schultz, “that Cyrus was influenced in the same way as were the prophets, upon whom, with their greater susceptibility, the Spirit of the Lord came; but yet an influence in consequence of which Cyrus made the will of God his own will, and executed it in the things under consideration. God gave him the resolution and the desire to execute His intention.” All the pure desires and noble resolutions of men’s hearts are Divine inspirations. All the good in human life is the result of Divine influence. (c)
2. The subject of this influence. “Cyrus king of Persia.” Cyrus was the greatest king of the mightiest empire of the world; he was a heathen, but, in common with his countrymen at this period, was probably a pure Theist, believing in One Supreme Being. As a prince, he was distinguished for his justice, and for the mildness and kindness of his administration. His relations to the people of God, and the terms by which they are described in the Scriptures, are very remarkable. He is spoken of as “the righteous man” (Isaiah 41:2); “My shepherd” (Isaiah 44:28), and “The Lord’s anointed” (Isaiah 45:1). God employed this celebrated heathen monarch in the accomplishment of His purposes, in the emancipation of His people, and the rebuilding of His Temple. (d) “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will.” He is now using the powers of the world to promote the interests of His cause. We have in this an earnest of His final victory over all heathen powers. “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents,” &c. (Psalms 72:10-11).
3. The design of this influence. “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, that he made a proclamation,” &c. Divine influence was exerted upon Cyrus to cause him to do an act of great generosity and nobility. The intention of the action of God upon the spirit of man is always gracious. In all the inspirations and impressions which He imparts to man, His aim is to save and bless him, and to make him an agent in blessing others.
IV. The suitable response of man to the influence of God. “Cyrus made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom,” &c. God’s influence upon the spirit of man is not irresistible. He impresses man, but He does not coerce him. He inspires man, but He does not compel him. Divine influence does not invade human freedom. Man may harden himself against it, may resist it to his own injury. “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost,” was a charge brought by Stephen against the Jews. Or, like Cyrus, man may yield to this influence, and suitably and heartily respond to it. When this is the case the Divine influence results in rich blessings. “Quench not the Spirit.” “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God.” (e)
(a) Is God all-mighty? Then be assured that the throne of right shall stand upon the ruins of all wrong; but here God is apparently at a disadvantage, because you cannot kill evil with the sword. The abolition of evil is a work of time, requiring the combination, the conspiring of innumerable moral influences and educational forces; but that conspiring is going on. “The Lord is not slack concerning His promises, as some men count slackness.”—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(b) “I will go before thee.” This was a Divine promise made to Cyrus; and God has made the same promise to all who put their trust in Him. It is surely something to have a Father’s promise singing in the heart. Many of us know the inspiration even of a human promise; many of us know that we never could have endured this bitter trial, or surmounted that overshadowing difficulty, had we not enjoyed the presence and hopefulness of some friendly promise in the heart. What we want to feel is the triumphant faith that says definitely to God, “Thou didst promise this, and we will wait for its fulfilment.”—Ibid.
(c) It is taught that, besides the general moral influences, unconscious and diffused—as it were distilled, like dew, in silence and darkness—there is an active energy, arousing, filling, impelling the souls of men. It is said that the Spirit of the Lord came upon judges, that it came upon kings, upon prophets, upon apostles—came mightily and stirred them up. As sudden and mighty winds make trees rock, and wrench them, and even overturn them, so, as by a mighty rushing wind, the Spirit of God has descended on men—on Samuel, on David, on Isaiah, on Paul. It is taught, likewise, that, while this energy of the Divine mind prepared certain men for emergencies, and prepared them to act official parts, all true Christians, all godly souls, are opening to a quickening influence, if not so mighty yet of the same general kind—an influence which stimulates, assists, ripens, and so finally sanctifies.
The Divine Spirit works along the line of a man’s own thinking power, along the channel of a man’s own motive power, and wakes up in the man that which was in him. It is not said that God’s thought rolls along and becomes a part—a material part—of the current of our thought; on the contrary, it is said that God makes us think, makes us will, makes us feel. What is the formula? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That is, work, work in earnest, as men do about a thing which they are afraid they shall not accomplish. Why? Because “it is God that worketh in you”—what? putting His own will there and His own thought?—because “it is God that worketh in you to will and to do.” There is the point in which the Divine influence expends itself, according to the explicit testimony of Scripture, for the development in man of that which he had in him of dormant power.—H. W. Beecher.
(d) One of the designations of Cyrus, “the man that executeth My counsel,” furnishes the key to the prophetic view of his character and position—a view which pervades all that is said of him, and promised to him. This forms the most striking and the most sustained of the instances in which the Lord not only asserts His supremacy in the government of the world, but reveals to us the mode in which that government operates, and the form in which it is most usually conducted. The marked manner in which Cyrus and his Persians are represented as set apart to execute the purposes of the Lord, while they considered themselves pursuing their own objects, cannot fail to suggest many interesting reflections respecting the manner in which the Lord acts in executing the high purposes of His will—often by agents who little think whom they are serving, and who are, it may be, as in this case, ignorant even of His name.
The greatest difficulty is supposed to be found in the designation of Cyrus, a heathen, as a “righteous man.” But this title, which indicates one who acts with habitual rectitude, who would not consciously inflict wrong—a just man, is not in Scripture confined to Israelites; and, what is more, it correctly describes the character of Cyrus, which, not less than his military exploits, caused his name to be long held in honour by his countrymen.… In fact, as Dr. Henderson remarks: “It is not a little remarkable, that of all the virtuous princes of antiquity, he alone was thought worthy of being exhibited as a model of just government. Not only was he exemplary in private life, but his victories and conquests had for their object the vindication of law and justice. He is even said to have been an object of the Divine love (Isaiah 48:14). His destruction of the Babylonian Empire and liberation of the Jews were special acts of righteousness; and the abolition of idolatry, which in a great measure followed the success of the Persian arms, comes also under the same head.” …
… But the Lord had not only called Cyrus by his name—He had “surnamed” him, as our translation somewhat vaguely renders it. What is meant is, not that He had given him any surname—for the name already mentioned was his own proper name—but that He had made honourable mention of him, and bestowed upon him titles of high honour, such as no heathen prince had ever received. What were these titles and honourable distinctions? One of them, “The righteous man,” has already engaged our attention. Two more occur in the passage last extracted (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:1-4): “My shepherd” and “Mine anointed.”
As to the first of these titles, that of “shepherd,” we know that good kings and rulers are called shepherds in Scripture, as they are in the ancient classics. It is a fact, however, that David, Cyrus, and Christ in His Messianic character, are the only sovereigns to whom the title is personally given. In other instances it is applied to the office of sovereign rather than to the person of any particular king. What is more remarkable is, that this very title was one to which Cyrus was partial, and the purport of which he fully appreciated. Xenophon describes him as saying, “The business of a good king and a good shepherd are much alike. The shepherd ought, before all things, to provide for the welfare and safety of his flock, and to make use of these creatures consistently with their happiness; and a king ought, in the same manner, to make men and cities happy, and in the same manner to make use of them.”
Cyrus, again, is called “the Lord’s anointed,” in reference to the ancient custom of anointing kings with oil at their inauguration. To be merely the “anointed,” was, therefore, no peculiar distinction to Cyrus, but to be “the Lord’s anointed” was a very high distinction; and it is given to him obviously because the Lord had, in His providence, appointed him to be the prince under whose rule the Jews were to be restored, and the other purposes of His will accomplished.—John Kitto, D.D.
(e) When we see a casket wrenched open, the hinges torn away, or the clasp destroyed, we mark at once the hand of the spoiler; but when we observe another casket deftly opened with a master key, and the sparkling contents revealed, we note the hand of the owner. Conversion is not, as some suppose, a violent opening of the heart by grace, in which will, reason, and judgment are all ignored or crushed. This is too barbarous a method for Him who comes not as a plunderer to his prey, but as a possessor to His treasure. In conversion, the Lord who made the human heart deals with it according to its nature and constitution. His key insinuates itself into the wards; the will is not enslaved but enfranchised; the reason is not blinded but enlightened; and the whole man is made to act with a glorious liberty which it never knew till it fell under the restraints of grace.—C. H. Spurgeon.
We are not forced to have God; we can deliberately take up our pen and strike His name out of the page on which we intend to record our life; or, on the other hand, we can say, “We are of yesterday, and know nothing; we are so wise as not to be able to tell what will occur to-morrow; we are so empty and barren as to carry our little earthly immortality in our nostrils. Lord, lead, and we shall follow; we accept Thy mercy; we will go where Thou goest.” So, then, religion is no tyranny; it is no pitiless compulsion of understanding and heart which we resent, but a blessing which first makes us poor, that it may afterwards enrich us with unwasting riches of purity, and strength, and love.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN THE PROCLAMATION OF CYRUS AND THE GOSPEL
I. In the disposition from which it originated. The motive which actuated the Persian emperor was benevolence. The love of Christ.
II. In the deliverance which it announced. From Babylon to Canaan. From the captivity of Satan and sin to a state of salvation here and hereafter.
III. In the terms which it specified. No pecuniary compensation for liberty. Salvation by grace.
IV. In the universality of its offers. Every Hebrew captive. Every sinner is invited.
V. In the aids it promised. Provision of help for the journey. Providential and spiritual aid for Christians. There were some who did not welcome the proclamation of Cyrus.—George Brooks.
THE EDICT OF CYRUS
I. The devout acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty.
1. In the bestowment of His favours. “Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth.” The Persian Empire at this time was very vast in its extent. In Isaiah 41:2, the Lord is represented as giving the nations to the righteous man from the East, and making him ruler over kings. The prophecy was remarkably fulfilled in Cyrus. (a). His attention was probably called to it by Daniel; and, perceiving its striking applicability to himself, he speaks of his wide dominions as given to him by Jehovah the God of heaven. (b). “The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever He will.” “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation; and He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven,” &c. (Daniel 4:32; Daniel 4:34-35). “Promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south: but God is the Judge; He putteth down one, and setteth up another.” God bestows His gifts according to His own wise and righteous will. (c).
2. In the authority of His commands. “And He hath charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” In Isaiah 44:28, it is predicted that Cyrus would say “to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the Temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.” Josephus (Ant. xi. i. 1, 2) states that Cyrus having read the prophecies by Isaiah on this matter, “an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfil what was so written.” He accepted it as a charge from God. Moreover, it is probable that God charged him by His own immediate action upon his spirit. As He stirred up his spirit to make the proclamation, He also probably charged his spirit to rebuild the Temple. And the king acknowledged His authority, accepted the charge, and proceeded to execute it. (d). All the commandments of the Lord are righteous, and are ever binding He is infinitely holy, and His will is ever authoritative on all moral beings everywhere. (e).
II. The magnanimous emancipation of God’s people. “Who is there among you of all His people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, He is the God which is in Jerusalem.” The edict of Cyrus does not grant political freedom to the Jews, but full religious liberty, with permission to go up to Jerusalem to rebuild the national Temple and restore the celebration of its worship.
1. The spirit in which the emancipation was made.
(1.) It was generous. “Who among you of all His people?” He does not attempt to keep back any. All are quite at liberty to depart if they are so minded.
(2.) It was pious. “His God be with him.” Thus he wishes them the presence and blessing of God; and having these, they would be sure to succeed.
2. The purpose for which the emancipation was made. “Let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, He is the God which is in Jerusalem.” He sets them free, not for purposes of war, but of worship; not for his own aggrandisement, but for the honour of God; that they might build a temple, not to Ormuzd the god of the Persians, but to Jehovah the God of Israel.
III. The generous exhortation to assist God’s people. “And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him,” &c. (Ezra 1:4).
1. The purport of this exhortation. That the subjects of Cyrus should assist the returning Jews with gifts. These gifts were of two classes:—
(1.) Some were for their personal use. “Help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts.”
(2.) The others were for the great work which they were about to undertake. “The freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”
2. The persons to whom it was addressed. “The men of his place” are those who belonged not to the Israelites—the heathen amongst whom they had sojourned, and whose goodwill they seem to have won. We may view it as an example of the world helping the Church in its enterprises. In spiritual things the world is unable to do this, but by material gifts it may aid the Church in the prosecution of its holy mission.
3. The pattern by which it was enforced. It is probable that Cyrus enforced his exhortation by his example, in bestowing liberal gifts upon the returning exiles. Rawlinson regards “the freewill offering for the house of God” as the gift of Cyrus himself. This is doubtful; but there is very little reason to doubt that he did render them personal help of this kind. He not only wished them well, but helped them to realise his wishes.
1. Be prepared to acknowledge and appreciate moral excellence outside of the visible Church of God. Cyrus, the centurion of Capernaum (Luke 7:1-10), and Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10:22) are examples.
2. Imitate Cyrus in his practical acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God.
3. When we cannot offer our labours in good enterprises, let us cheerfully offer our gifts.
(a) In the forty-first chapter of Isaiah, the Almighty is sublimely introduced as demanding who it was that had raised up this great conqueror, this Cyrus, characterised as “the righteous man from the East;” who had called him to His foot—that is, had made him the instrument of the high purposes of His will. “Who,” the interrogation proceeds,
“Gave the nations before him,
And made him ruler over kings?
He gave them as the dust to his sword,
And as driven stubble to his bow.
He pursued them, and passed safely;
Even by the way that he had not gone with his feet.
Who hath wrought and done it,
Calling the generations from the beginning?
I the Lord, the First,
And with the last; I am He.”
This assertion of the instrumentality of Cyrus—of his being in a peculiar manner the child of the Lord’s providence, is always thus emphatically produced, and gives the clue to his history.
The fact that the Persians had not before taken part in the affairs of the West, and, in particular, that Cyrus had not, is clearly pointed out in the lines which describe his westward march as one not previously known to his feet. In fact, he had to march so far west as to the neighbourhood of Sardis, before he was enabled to meet the enemy in full force and give him battle. This Sardis was the capital of the Lydian Empire; and it seems to have been the policy of Crœsus to draw the Persian far away from his own resources, and into the district where his own means were most available, before he gave him the opportunity of coming to a decisive action.
The extent of this victory and its important consequences are indicated by the largeness of the terms employed; not one nation, but many nations, not one king, but many kings, are given “as the dust to his sword, and as the driven stubble to his bow.” Accordingly, the nations who had leagued against him on this occasion, and whom he subdued, were Lydians, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, and all the nations of Asia Minor, and, taken in a large sense, with reference to the final extension of his power, it embraced the Medes, Hyrcanians, Assyrians, Arabians, Cappadocians, Phrygians, Lydians, Carians, Phœnicians, and Babylonians. “He ruled also,” says Xenophon, “over the Bactrians, Indians, and Cilicians, as well as the Sacians, Paphlagonians, and Megadinians, and many other nations, whose names even one cannot enumerate. He ruled the Greeks that were settled in Asia; and, descending to the sea, the Cyprians and the Egyptians. These nations he ruled, though their languages differed from his own, and from each other; and yet was he enabled to extend the fear of himself over so great a part of the world, as to astonish all, so that no one dared to attempt anything against him.”—John Kitto, D.D.
(b) Cyrus saw and acknowledged the Hand by which his path had been marked out, and his steps guided; and he hastened to testify his convictions and his obedience by executing with earnestness the remaining task to which he had been called—that of restoring the Jews to their own land. These are the memorable words of the edict which was promulgated in writing through all his empire: “Jehovah, the God of heaven, hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and He hath charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” There is nothing indefinite or uncertain in this. If he had said simply, “the God of heaven,” we might have been doubtful as to his meaning. It might have been understood of the god he had been used to worship. But here he gives Him the name by which the Lord was peculiarly known among the Hebrews—the great name of Jehovah; and declares unreservedly his conviction that HE was “the God of heaven.” Surely this is a great declaration. It shows not only that Cyrus recognised the truth and inspiration of these prophecies, but that they wrought the conviction in his mind that the Jehovah, in whose name they were uttered, was, and could be, no other than “the God of heaven.”
That this “Jehovah, the God of heaven,” and not his own Ormuzd, “had given him all the kingdoms of the earth,” he could only have known from Isaiah’s prophecy, which declared the intention to give them to him, so long before he saw the light. Indeed, if he believed anything at all of the prophecy, he could not but believe this—that he owed all his glory and his greatness to his being the predestinated and prenominated agent of Jehovah; and that it was He, and no other, who had made the nations “as dust to his sword, and as driven stubble to his bow.”—Ibid.
(c) The whole world is in the hand of God, let us be thankful. The whole past is under His review, let us leave it with the assurance that His judgment is righteous. The whole future is under His control, let us pass into it with the steadiness, the quietness, and the majesty of those who know that all the resources of God are placed at the disposal of all who put their whole trust in His wisdom and love.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(d) It was only through Isaiah’s prophecy that Cyrus could have realised the conviction that “Jehovah, God of Israel,” had, as he says, “charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah.” For nowhere else is this command given; and nothing but the convincing evidence of this command being contained in an old prophecy, which in so many other circumstances unmistakably indicates him and no other, could have invested this command, to his thoughtful and sagacious mind, with an authority and power not to be gainsaid. The intensity of his conviction is, however, manifested by the alacrity and fulness with which he discharged the high duty imposed upon him. This gives a marked intensity to the “me.” “He hath charged ME:” “Me,” and no other. It was not a duty imperative on any king of Persia, but on him personally and individually.—John Kitto, D.D.
(e) The first act of sovereignty is the making laws. This is essential to God; no creature’s will can be the first rule to the creature, but only the will of God: He only can prescribe man his duty, and establish the rule of it; hence the law is called “the royal law” (James 2:8); it being the first and clearest manifestation of sovereignty, as the power of legislation is of the authority of a prince. Both are joined together in Isaiah 33:22 : “The Lord is our Lawgiver; the Lord is our King,”—legislative power being the great mark of royalty. God, as a King, enacts laws by His own proper authority, and His law is a declaration of His own sovereignty, and of men’s moral subjection to Him and dependence on Him. His sovereignty doth not appear so much in His promises as in His precepts: a man’s power over another is not discovered by promising; for a promise doth not suppose the promiser either superior or inferior to the person to whom the promise is made. It is not an exercising authority over another, but over a man’s self; no man forceth another to the acceptance of his promise, but only proposeth and encourageth to an embracing of it. But commanding supposeth always an authority in the person giving the precept; it obligeth the person to whom the command is directed; a promise obligeth the person by whom the promise is made. God, by His command, binds the creature; by His promise He binds Himself; He stoops below his sovereignty to lay obligations on His own majesty; by a precept He binds the creature, by a promise He encourageth the creature, to an observance of His precept. What laws God makes, man is bound, by virtue of His creation, to observe; that respects the sovereignty of God. What promises God makes, man is bound to believe; but that respects the faithfulness of God.—Stephen Charnocke, B.D.
THE PROCLAMATION OF CYRUS
This proclamation, interesting in itself, is adapted to convey instruction of a very edifying nature if properly considered. We may view it—
I. In a way of literal interpretation.
1. And here that which first calls for our notice is the person by whom this proclamation was issued. It was Cyrus king of Persia; who, though by education ignorant of God, and how He was to be served, was yet employed as an instrument in effecting His gracious purposes—which shows the power He exercises over the spirits of men, a power far exceeding that merely human, which extends only to their bodies.
2. But the proclamation itself is that which more particularly demands our attention. In this we see that a great event was to be effected, namely, the deliverance of the Jews from Babylon, after a long and trying captivity; which event opened to them the pleasing prospect of again worshipping Jehovah in their native land. This God had foretold by the mouth of His servant Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:10); and as He did not forget His promise, so neither did He delay the fulfilment of it beyond the proper time (Isaiah 44:26-28).
II. In a way of spiritual improvement. In the proclamation of Cyrus we may see—
1. What a sad state the men of the world at large are in. They are slaves and captives, being in bondage to their lusts, to the world, to Satan, and to the grave (Romans 6:12; Romans 8:21; Ephesians 2:2; 2 Timothy 2:26; 2 Peter 2:19; 1 John 5:19). This is a humiliating, but just, view of them.
2. What an invaluable blessing the Gospel is. No one needs be told what a blessing the proclamation of Cyrus was to the captive Jews; and precisely such is the Gospel, as announcing deliverance to us (Isaiah 27:13).
3. What will be necessary to obtain what it offers? However deeply all are interested in doing this, too many, alas! are well contented with their bondage, displaying thus most inconceivable madness; whereas, by repentance and faith, they should go up out of it; and by returning to God enjoy the glorious liberty of His children.
4. What is our bounden duty when it has become effectual for our good? God is said to “raise the spirits” of such as were ambitious for liberty; and it need not be said to whom we are indebted, if we differ from others (1 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Corinthians 15:10; James 1:17).—William Sleigh.
GOD WITH US
(Ezra 1:3 : “His God be with him”)
I. The devout wish expressed. “His God be with him.” It is equivalent to our “Good-bye,” which is an abbreviation of “God be with you.” This wish comprises two things—
1. Personal relation to God. “His God.” The expression may be viewed in two aspects—
(1.) “His God,” as opposed to the gods of the heathen. “Jehovah the God of heaven” be with him. He is the only living and true God.
(2.) “His God,” as engaged to him in covenant relation. God had condescended to enter into covenant with the Israelites (Genesis 17:1-14; Exodus 19:3-8; Jeremiah 32:38-41; Ezekiel 16:8). And in the Gospel He engages, or covenants, to forgive and save all who accept Christ by faith, to receive them as His people, and to be their God. Thus our Lord speaks: “My Father and your Father; My God and your God” (John 20:17). All that He has, and all that He is, He gives to them as their portion, to be employed for their good. Without any presumption the true believer in Jesus Christ may say unto the great God, “My God and my Father.” (a). Martin Luther said that the sweetness of the Gospel consisted chiefly in its pronouns—such as me, my, thy, &c. “Who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). “Christ Jesus, my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). It is the assurance of our personal interest in God, through Christ Jesus our Lord, that makes Him so unspeakably precious unto us. (b).
2. Realisation of the presence of God. “His God be with him.” He is everywhere present; but His presence is realised only by believing, loving, and reverent spirits. Such spirits feel Him near—they have communion with Him, &c. (c). His presence is a guarantee of all the help and blessing which we need. We have all things in Him. (d). But in uttering this wish in respect to the Jews, Cyrus probably had an eye to two things which the presence of God would secure to them—
(1.) Guidance and guardianship on their long journey. In the pilgrimage of life we have infallible direction and inviolable protection, if our God be with us.
(2.) Success in their great undertaking. Having the Divine Presence, the returning exiles would be able to overcome the difficulties which lay before them, and to rebuild the Temple of the Lord their God. The presence of God is the pledge of the success and triumph of His people.
II. The kind expression of this wish. The expression of this wish indicates on the part of Cyrus—
1. Reverence towards God. He does not utter these words thoughtlessly, but seriously. His proclamation makes it quite clear that he entertained reverent and exalted views of the Divine Being. In our kind wishes let us never use the Divine Name except with consideration and veneration.
2. Kindness towards the captives. He wished them well, and proved the sincerity of his wishes by practically helping them in their best interests.
1. Do we sustain this personal relation to God?
2. Do we realise the blessed presence of God?
3. Do we desire that others also may realise His gracious presence?
(a) This goodness appears in the choice gift of Himself which He hath made over in this covenant (Genesis 17:7). You know how it runs in Scripture: “I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 32:38); a propriety in the Deity is made over by it. As He gave the blood of His Son to seal the covenant, so He gave Himself as the blessing of the covenant; “He is not ashamed to be called their God” (Hebrews 11:16). Though He be environed with millions of angels, and presides over them in an inexpressible glory, He is not ashamed of His condescensions to man, and to pass over Himself as the propriety of His people, as well as to take them to be His. It is a diminution of the sense of the place, to understand it of God, as Creator. What reason was there for God to be ashamed of the expressions of His power, wisdom, goodness, in the works of His hands? But we might have reason to think there might be some ground in God to be ashamed of making Himself over in a deed of gift to a mean worm and a filthy rebel; this might seem a disparagement to His majesty; but God is not ashamed of a title so mean as the God of His despised people; a title below those others, of the “Lord of hosts, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders, riding on the wings of the wind, walking in the circuits of heaven.” He is no more ashamed of this title of being our God, than He is of those other that sound more glorious; He would rather have His greatness veil to His goodness, than His goodness be confined by His majesty. He is not only our God, but our God as He is the God of Christ; He is not ashamed to be our propriety, and Christ is not ashamed to own His people in a partnership with Him in this propriety (John 20:17): “I ascend to My God and your God.” This, of God’s being our God, is the quintessence of the covenant, the soul of all the promises; in this He hath promised whatsoever is infinite in Him, whatsoever is the glory and ornament of His nature, for our use; not a part of Him, or one single perfection, but the whole vigour and strength of all. As He is not a God without infinite wisdom, and infinite power, and infinite goodness, and infinite blessedness, &c., so He passes over in this covenant all that which presents Him as the most adorable Being to His creatures. He will be to them as great, as wise, as powerful, as good as He is in Himself; and the assuring us in this covenant to be our God imports also that He will do as much for us as we would do for ourselves were we furnished with the same goodness, power, and wisdom. In being our God He testifies it is all one, as if we had the same perfections in our own power to employ for our use; for He being possessed with them, it is as much as if we ourselves were possessed with them, for our own advantage, according to the rules of wisdom and the several conditions we pass through for His glory.—Stephen Charnocke, B.D.
(b) Only to be permitted to contemplate such a Being as Jehovah; to see goodness, holiness, justice, mercy, long-suffering, and sovereignty personified and condensed; to see them united with eternity, infinite power, unerring wisdom, omnipresence, and all-sufficiency; to see these natural and moral perfections indissolubly united and blended in sweet harmony in a pure spiritual Being, and that Being placed on the throne of the universe; to see this would be happiness enough to fill the mind of any creature in existence. But in addition to this, to have this ineffable Being for our God, our portion, our all; to be permitted to say, “This God is our God for ever and ever;” to have His resplendent countenance smile upon us; to be encircled in His everlasting arms of power, and faithfulness, and love; to hear His voice saying to us, “I am yours, and you are Mine; nothing shall ever pluck you from My hands, or separate you from My love; but you shall be with Me where I am, behold My glory, and live to reign with Me for ever and ever.” This is too much; it is honour, it is glory it is happiness too overwhelming, too transporting for mortal minds to conceive, or for mortal frames to support; and it is perhaps well for us that here we know but in part, and that it doth not yet appear what we shall be.—Edward Payson, D.D.
(c) My friend has gone away from me over the sea and beyond the mountain, but I have him in my heart; his thoughts, his views of life, his behaviour under given circumstances, his noble impatience, his magnanimous scorn of all that is low and mean, never leave me; they will mould my life, they will save me in many a temptation. He is with me always because of the realising power of love. And this that we know something about in friendship, in the family circle, in literature, reaches its highest consummation in Jesus Christ; for though He has gone away from us, He says, “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” Though we cannot see Him, yet He says, “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Though we would gladly lay hold of His wounded hand, He says it is better not. It is expedient for you that fleshly contact cease, and that you lay hold of Him by the tendrils of your love. For what if we did grasp hands, death would break up our union; but if we grasp hearts, we are one for ever.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(d) “I have read,” says an old divine, “of a company of poor Christians who were banished into some remote part, and one standing by, seeing them pass along, said that it was a very sad condition those poor people were in, to be thus hurried from the society of men, and made companions with the beasts of the field. ‘True,’ said another, ‘it were a sad condition indeed if they were carried to a place where they should not find their God; but let them be of good cheer, God goes along with them, and will exhibit the comforts of His presence whithersoever they go. God’s presence with His people is a spring that never fails.’ ”—The Sunday School Teacher.
THE RELEASE OF THE JEWS FROM BABYLON AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE REDEMPTION OF MAN FROM SIN
(Ezra 1:3; Ezra 1:5)
We discover an analogy in these two things as regards—
I. The subjects. The Jews were exiles and captives in Babylon. Apart from the redemptive power of God, man is the captive of Satan and the slave of sin. He is “taken captive by him at his will.” He is the slave of sinful passions and habits. He is captive, imprisoned, and bound (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). “Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). “I see a law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:23). In his sinful state, man is an exile from his true condition and place, and the bondsman of evil powers. (a).
II. The agents. Cyrus, and Jesus Christ. The analogy between them is at least twofold.
1. Both were called of God to this work. Ages before his birth Cyrus was prenominated for this work, and spoken of as the anointed of the Lord, and as strengthened by Him for the accomplishment of this work (Isaiah 44:24 to Isaiah 45:6). And Jesus Christ is pre-eminently the Servant, the Anointed, the Sent of God (Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:18-19; John 3:16-17; Galatians 4:4-5; 1 John 4:9).
2. Both effected this work by battling with and overcoming the oppressors. Cyrus had to conquer the Babylonian Empire before he could release the captive Jews. And our Lord and Saviour, as the Son of Man, encountered sin and mastered it; He resisted temptation and overcame it; He battled with the devil and vanquished him; He grappled with death and abolished it; and thus He offers freedom from sin and Satan to all men. (b).
III. The source. In both cases the blessing flowed from the free and unmerited grace of God. The Jews had no claim upon Him against whom they had so persistently and so grievously rebelled. He “stirred up the spirit of Cyrus” to grant them release, of His own spontaneous and gracious will. In like manner He gave His Son Jesus Christ for the salvation of men. “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us,” &c. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us,” &c. (Titus 3:5-7). He gave His Son, He bestowed the Holy Spirit, He instituted means and ministries of grace, all of His own sovereign favour. Human redemption in its origin, in its accomplishment, and in its conditions, is entirely of divine grace. “It is of faith that it might be by grace.” (c).
IV. The extent.
1. It is offered to all. “Who is there among you of all His people?” &c. Every Jew was free to go to Jerusalem if he pleased. Salvation from sin is provided for all, and freely offered to all. Christ “died for all.” “God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved,” &c. “God so loved the world,” &c. “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” “Go ye into all the world,” &c.
2. It is accepted only by some. “Then rose up the chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all whose spirit God had raised,” &c. Great numbers preferred to remain in Babylon.
(1.) Many did not feel any deprivation or degradation in their exile and subjection. They had been born in Babylon, had passed their lives there, &c. Many do not accept the offered “redemption that is in Christ Jesus” because they are not conscious of the slavery of sin. Like the Jews of a later age, they say, “We were never in bondage to any man.” (d).
(2.) Many had attachments and interests in Babylon which they could not or would not leave. And great numbers in this day will not comply with the conditions of spiritual redemption. Their love of the things of this world, and their devotion to temporal things, bind them to the Babylon of the world and sin. When summoned to “Arise, and depart,” they are unwilling to obey.
V. The object. “Go up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem.” A striking illustration of the grand end of redemption, which may be expressed thus—
1. The universal realisation of the presence of God. So St. John describes it: “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them,” &c. (Revelation 21:3).
2. The universal presentation of worship to God. “And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth,” &c. (Revelation 5:13-14).
“And the Temple again shall be built
And filled as it was of yore;
And the burden be lift from the heart of the world,
And the nations all adore.
Prayers to the throne of Heaven
Morning and eve shall rise;
And unto and not of the Lamb
Shall be the sacrifice.”—P. J. Bailey.
(a) Sin may be conceived of as an object, but also as a power—as something to which our actions are directed, but also as something from which our actions proceed. Sin is an internal principle, and he who “commits sin,” who lives in it, obeys it in this sense—obeys it as a force. Occasional acts may not represent, but belie a man’s real nature; but he can do as a habit only what he is, and if that is sinful, he is the slave of sin. The whole and constant tendency and bias of the soul is a despotic rule; it is more than any external authority or verbal law. It has a more rigorous and relentless rule. It is more besetting, has a more constant presence and constraining power; it acts directly on the will; it controls and stimulates volition. That is a great bondage which overbears the will, which brings it against itself into subjection, which ignores and defies its choice, but that is a greater far which corrupts and perverts it. There is no slavery like that in which the very seat and source of freedom is held captive. It is the salt itself losing its savour; it is the light leading astray; it is the king and leader falling in battle.—A. J. Morris.
Go to the intemperate man in the morning, when his head aches, his hand trembles, his throat burns, and his whole frame is relaxed and unstrung: he is ashamed, hates his sin, would not do it. Go to him at night, when the power of habit is on him like a spell, and he obeys the mastery of his craving. He can use the language of Romans 7:0 : “That which he would, he does not; but the evil that he hates, that does he.” Observe, he is not in possession of a true self. It is not he, but sin which dwelleth in him that does it. A power which is not himself, which is not he, commands him against himself.
This is a gross case, but in every more refined instance the slavery is just as real. Wherever a man would and cannot, there is servitude. He may be unable to control his expenditure, to rouse his indolence, to check his imagination. Well, he is not free. He may boast, as the Jews did, that he is Abraham’s son, or any other great man’s son; that he belongs to a free country; that he never was in bondage to any man; but free in the freedom of the Son he is not.—F. W. Robertson, M.A.
(b) Christ came to open the prison doors and preach deliverance to the captives. “If the Son, therefore, shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” When Paul was describing the bitter bondage of the unregenerate state, he could not finish it without the parenthetical exclamation, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death,” &c. (Romans 8:2-4).
Yes, Christ is a Redeemer, a Redeemer from the slavery of sin, by entering into the personal contest with evil, with sin, Satan, and the world lying in wickedness; suffering, but not submitting; falling, but yet a victor; being “made sin for us, though He knew no sin,” and thus becoming “the Author of eternal redemption to all them that obey Him.” He became sin, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” “Through death He destroyed him that had the power of death.” He “hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.”
This is our hope. There is no other can break our chains, or make us wish to have them broken. There is no other can rescue us from bondage, or beget in us the love and aspiration of spiritual freedom. It remains for us to lay hold of this hope. And this can be done only by believing His word. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” “But God be thanked that ye were the servants of sin; but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered to you.”—A. J. Morris.
(c) Every good thing that is in a Christian, not merely begins, but progresses, and is consummated by the fostering grace of God, through Jesus Christ. If my finger were on the golden latch of Paradise, and my foot were on its jasper threshold, I should not take the last step so as to enter heaven unless the grace which brought me so far should enable me fully and fairly to complete my pilgrimage. Salvation is God’s work, not man’s. This is the theology which Jonah learned in the great fish college, in the university of the great deep, to which college it would be a good thing if many of our divines could be sent, for human learning often puffeth up with the idea of human sufficiency; but he that is schooled and disciplined in the college of a deep experience, and made to know the vileness of his own heart, as he peers into its chambers of imagery, will confess that from first to last salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.—C. H. Spurgeon.
(d) Men may have a high notion of personal independence, and make a great boast of freedom, and yet be in the deepest and most degrading bondage. And we may extend this thought to other things. Moral and spiritual evil may be, and frequently is, allied to a keen sense and a tenacious hold of other kinds of good. We may live in sin, which is the worst weakness, and yet have reverence for many kinds of not the lowest power. We may live in sin, which is the deepest degradation, and yet have noble elevation of moral thought and sympathy. The thought of slavery may fire our blood with scorn and hate, and yet we may be slaves of sin.
The reason is obvious. Sin is voluntary. It must be. Compulsory sin is a contradiction in terms. Its root and fountain is in the will. It is its being willed that constitutes it sin. For, as Coleridge said, “Nothing is me but my will.” In sinning men do what they wish, what gives them pleasure. They feel no constraint; they are but acting out their wills.
And then, again, the practice of sin gradually destroys the power of seeing and feeling that it is slavery. We see things by means of their opposites. We estimate by contrast. And as we see we feel. It is what is good in man that resists evil, mourns over it, repents of it. One wholly evil could do none of these things, and when men are wholly evil they are lost. It is the memory, the feeling, the aspiration of freedom that makes men writhe under slavery. It is the reason not entirely blinded, the conscience not utterly seared, that sees and smarts under sin. And when the sense of liberty and the sense of holiness have died out, the man may hug his chains, and the sinner is no more able to deliver his soul or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” And this is the curse of both slavery and sin.—A. J. Morris.
THE RETURN OF THE EXILES
In these verses two main points claim our attention—
I. The company who returned. “Then rose up the chief of the father,” &c. (Ezra 1:5).
1. They were of various classes. “The chief of the fathers of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests, and the Levites, with all whose spirit God had raised.” It was well that the chiefs, men of experience and rank and influence, and the priests and the Levites, men who were consecrated to the service of God, should take the lead in this worthy and difficult undertaking. They who are conspicuous in position should be solicitous to act becomingly; and they whose influence is great should see to it that it is also good.
2. They were of noble character. “All whose spirit God had raised.” “Only those marched up,” says Schultz, “whom the Spirit of God awakened, that is, only the zealous and the awakened, whose spirits allowed themselves to be filled from God with courage and joy to overcome all the difficulties that opposed them, and with a longing for the land of their fathers that outweighed every other consideration. This limitation was, moreover, entirely in accordance with the Divine purpose. They must bring with them a zeal for the service of the true God that could not be quenched, at least entirely, by the difficult and gloomy circumstances in Judea, that might be enkindled and fed in some of them by these very circumstances.” They were men of—
(1.) Piety, as we see from their zeal for the rebuilding of the Temple of God, and the restoration of their national worship.
(2.) Patriotism, or they would not have left Babylon for their desolate fatherland.
(3.) Courage, or they could not have confronted the perils of this enterprise. (a).
3. They were exalted in purpose. They went “up to build the house of the Lord, which is in Jerusalem.” No personal or selfish aim was theirs; but the honour of their fatherland, and the glory of their God.
“What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas? the spoils of war?
They sought a faith’s pure shrine!”
4. They were comparatively few in number.
(1.) Only three of the tribes are mentioned (Judah, Benjamin, Levi) as availing themselves of the opportunity offered by the proclamation of Cyrus. There may have been some of the other tribes with them; but if this were so, their numbers were so few that they are not noticed in this place. The ten tribes of Israel are conspicuous by reason of their absence from this record.
(2.) And of the tribes mentioned only a portion returned to their own country. There is considerable uncertainty as to the exact number; but certainly there were not fifty thousand persons in all. “The return home,” says Schultz, “was not a matter that required no consideration. Their native land lay either desolate or occupied with heathen and barbarous nations. Great dangers threatened the little nation, that would put itself in opposition with the inhabitants; and, indeed, severe tasks awaited them. In Babylon, on the other hand, their circumstances had become such that they could very well endure them, yea, they were favourable, as we can see from Isaiah 56:11-12, hence ‘many remained behind in Babylon, unwilling to relinquish their property’ (Joseph. Ant. XI. i. 3).” (b). An illustration of those who are in love with this present evil world, and decline to enter upon the Christian life with its self-denials and difficulties.
II. The assistance which they received.
1. This was general. “And all they that were about them strengthened their hands,” &c. The Jews who elected to remain in Babylon would be likely to aid them liberally, in order to a certain extent to make up for their apparent neglect in remaining behind. And the Babylonians, encouraged by the exhortation and example of Cyrus, would aid them also.
2. This was spontaneous. “They that were about them” were not compelled to aid them at all. It is indeed stated that the gifts for rebuilding of the Temple were “willingly offered;” and the same cheerful liberality doubtless characterised their other gifts. They gave “not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver.” In the hearty contributions of these heathens towards building the Temple of the true God, have we not a hint and a foreshadowing of the gathering of the heathen world into the Church of Jesus Christ?
3. This was honourable to both the givers and the receivers.
(1.) To the givers, who were not only willing that the exiles should return home, but generously aided them to do so.
(2.) To the receivers. These gifts are a proof that in the land of their captivity their conduct must have won the esteem of their conquerors.
Apply the subject as illustrating the offers of deliverance from the bondage of sin which are made in the Gospel, and of the aids which are provided for those who accept those offers, and urge their immediate and hearty acceptance.
(a) The dominion of God is manifested in raising up and ordering the spirits of men according to His pleasure. He doth, as the Father of spirits, communicate an influence to the spirits of men, as well as an existence; He puts what inclinations He pleaseth into the will, stores it with what habits He pleases, whether natural or supernatural, whereby it may be rendered more ready to act according to the Divine purpose. The will of man is a finite principle, and therefore subject to Him who hath an infinite sovereignty over all things; and God, having a sovereignty over the will, in the manner of its acting, causeth it to will what He wills, as to the outward act, and the outward manner of performing it.… Thus He appointed Cyrus to be His shepherd, and gave him a pastoral spirit for the restoration of the city and Temple of Jerusalem (Isaiah 44:28); and Isaiah (Isaiah 45:5) tells them, in the prophecy, that He had girded him, though Cyrus had not known Him; i.e. God had given him a military spirit and strength for so great an attempt, though he did not know that he was acted by God for those Divine purposes. And when the time came for the house of the Lord to be rebuilt, the spirits of the people were raised up, not by themselves, but by God (Ezra 1:5), “Whose spirit God had raised to go up;” and not only the spirit of Zerubbabel, the magistrate, and of Jeshua, the priest, but the spirit of all the people, from the highest to the meanest that attended him, were acted by God to strengthen their hands, and promote the work (Haggai 1:14). The spirits of men, even in those works which are naturally desirable to them, as the restoration of the city and rebuilding of the Temple was to those Jews, are acted by God, as the Sovereign over them, much more when the wheels of men’s spirits are lifted up above their ordinary temper and motion. It was this empire of God good Nehemiah regarded, as that whence he was to hope for success; he did not assure himself so much of it, from the favour he had with the king, nor the reasonableness of his intended petition, but the absolute power God had over the heart of that great monarch; and, therefore, he supplicates the heavenly, before he petitioned the earthly, throne (Nehemiah 2:4): “So I prayed to the God of heaven.” The heathens had some glance of this; it is an expression that Cicero hath somewhere, “That the Roman commonwealth was rather governed by the assistance of the Supreme Divinity over the hearts of men, than by their own counsels and management.” How often hath the feeble courage of men been heightened to such a pitch as to stare death in the face, which before were damped with the least thought or glance of it! This is a fruit of God’s sovereign dominion.—Charnocke. For further illustration of this topic, see p. 7.
(b) Some readers may perhaps wonder that, on this proclamation of Cyrus, the Jews did not assemble in one body, and directly go and take possession of their ancient inheritance; but a little reflection shows the matter in another light. The city and Temple lay a heap of ruins, and it would cost immense labour and expense to rebuild them. The land was either wholly desolate or occupied by encroaching neighbours; and in either case it would require some time and trouble to procure for themselves habitations and provisions. The journey was long, arduous, and perilous to those who were attended with families and substance; and many enemies would endeavour to plunder them by the way, as far as they could and dared (chap. Ezra 8:21-23; Nehemiah 2:7). None of the Jews had seen Jerusalem or the Temple, except such as were above fifty years of age; at which period of life the spirit of enterprise commonly begins to decline. Few were attached to the Temple by true piety: and most of them wanted even that attachment which men naturally feel for the land of their nativity, having been born in the places where they were then settled. Some persons of true and eminent piety were so situated that they did not think it their duty to remove; as Daniel in the court of Cyrus. Others would be hindered by the infirmities of old age, and the peculiar circumstances of their families and connections. In short, the difficulties, hardship, and peril were manifest; the success of the attempt would be doubtful to all but those that were “strong in faith;” its temporal advantages were remote and precarious, and not worth the venture, especially to such as had obtained comfortable settlements or occupations in the land of their captivity. Even the spiritual advantages would appear to the pious mind more intended for posterity than for that generation; and to engage in it, in this view, would require vigorous faith, lively hope, and an active zeal for the honour of God, and the benefit of His Church, and establishment of His worship, in ages to come.—Thomas Scott.
THE RESULTS OF THE CAPTIVITY
It may be well to consider here what were the actual effects of the captivity upon the Jewish people. These are well stated in Dr. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, art. Cyrus, from which we quote the following paragraphs:—
The edict of Cyrus for the rebuilding of the Temple was, in fact, the beginning of Judaism; and the great changes by which the nation was transformed into a Church are clearly marked.
I. The lesson of the kingdom was completed by the captivity. The sway of a temporal prince was at length felt to be at best only a faint image of that Messianic kingdom to which the prophets pointed. The royal power had led to apostasy in Israel, and to idolatry in Judah; and men looked for some outward form in which the law might be visibly realised. Dependence on Persia excluded the hope of absolute political freedom, and offered a sure guarantee for the liberty of religious organisation.
II. The captivity which was the punishment of idolatry was also the limit of that sin. Thenceforth the Jews apprehended fully the spiritual nature of their faith, and held it fast through persecution. At the same time wider views were opened to them of the unseen world. The powers of good and evil were recognised in their action on the material world, and in this way some preparation was made for the crowning doctrine of Christianity.
III. The organisation of the outward Church was connected with the purifying of doctrine, and served as the form in which the truth might be realised by the mass. Prayer—public and private—assumed a new importance. The prophetic work came to an end. The Scriptures were collected. The “law was fenced” by an oral tradition. Synagogues were erected and schools formed. Scribes shared the respect of priests, if they did not supersede them in popular regard.
IV. Above all, the bond by which “the people of God” was held together was at length felt to be religious and not local, nor even primarily national. The Jews were incorporated in different nations, and still looked to Jerusalem as the centre of their faith. The boundaries of Canaan were passed, and the beginnings of a spiritual dispensation were already made when the “Dispersion” was established among the kingdoms of the earth.—B. F. Westcott, M.A.
THE RESTORATION OF THE SACRED VESSELS
I. The preservation of the sacred vessels. “Also Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had brought forth out of Jerusalem, and had put them in the house of his gods; even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer.” These are the vessels which are mentioned in. 2 Chronicles 36:7, and Daniel 1:2. They did not include all the consecrated things; for we read in 2 Kings 24:13, of some that were afterwards “cut in pieces” by Nebuchadnezzar or some of his soldiers. But in the providence of God these vessels were remarkably preserved, to be in due time restored to their original place and uses. Nebuchadnezzar, regarding them as sacred things, did not appropriate them to purposes of his own, but placed them in the temple of his god Merodach, or Bel, as he was called by the Greeks, at Babylon; and in this way they were preserved.
Since God is so careful of the mere vessels consecrated to His service, may we not rest assured that He will much more preserve His consecrated people? His children are far more precious in His sight than the most costly furniture of His temples. (a).
II. The numeration of the sacred vessels. “Even those did Cyrus king of Persia bring forth by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and numbered them unto Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.” This numbering indicates—
1. The reverent care of Cyrus for these sacred vessels.
2. The grave responsibility of Sheshbazzar for these sacred vessels. He would be held accountable for the number of them thus counted out to him.
That persons, places, and things which are devoted to religious uses should be reverently regarded by us. Their associations should raise them far above the level of common things. (b).
III. The restoration of the sacred vessels. “All these did Sheshbazzar bring up with them of the captivity that were brought up from Babylon unto Jerusalem.”
1. This was a fulfilment of prophecy (Jeremiah 27:22). Prophecy is a “sure word.” The predictions of the Holy Bible will become accomplished facts; its promises will all be fulfilled. The veracity and the power of God guarantee the fulfilment of the declarations and assurances of His Word.
2. This is an illustration of the restoration of perverted things to their true uses. Many of the gifts of God are sadly misused; e.g., wealth, when it is employed for purposes of self-indulgence or vain show, or when it is avariciously hoarded; eloquence, when it is employed to arouse and inspire men in unworthy enterprises; poetry, when it is made the vehicle of impure suggestions, or the quickener of corrupt imaginations; art, &c. All these things, like the sacred vessels of the Jews, shall be restored to their true uses. They shall be employed in harmony with the will of God, for His glory, and for the good of mankind. The Lord Jesus Christ is the great Restorer of the violated order, and the broken harmony of the universe of God. “In the dispensation of the fulness of times God will gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in Him.” (c).
(a) “They shall be Mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up My jewels.” God has jewels even amid the ruins of this shattered and degraded world. “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” Terrible as has been the havoc created by sin, there are “jewels” still on the earth, and no hand can rifle them. Many times have Satan and his legions sought to purloin the treasure, but the Word of the Lord is faithful—“no man can pluck them out of My Father’s hand.”—Joseph Parker, D.D.
Beneath the wings of the Almighty God, night with its pestilence cannot smite the saints, and day with its cares cannot destroy them; youth with its passions shall be safely passed; middle age with its whirl of business shall be navigated in safety; old age with its infirmities shall become the land of Beulah; death’s gloomy vale shall be lit up with the coming splendour; the actual moment of departure, the last and solemn article shall be the passing over of a river dryshod. “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee, saith the Lord.” “They shall never perish.”—C. H. Spurgeon.
(b) It is a dreadful thing to trifle with sacred matters. If at any time we open the Bible, or anything out of it be opened to us, and we have not the serious design before our eyes and upon our hearts, that we would know more of divine things, that we may be made more like God, and be more fitted for His service and communion both here and hereafter, we shall be found guilty of trifling with that which is sacred; and though in this world the punishment may not be so visibly severe, yet the guilt is undoubtedly greater than that which Uzzah lay under when he rashly laid hold on the ark; and the Bethshemites, when they opened and would be curiously prying into it. When a man meddleth with the great things of God, and can give no account for what he does, but only to satisfy his curiosity, and the idle fancy of a vain mind; this, sooner or later, must have a sad issue.—John Howe.
(c) The reconciliation which our Lord has effected has bearings as wide as creation. The whole creation will be restored, and inherit with man the peace and glory of Christ. Evil struggles and will yet struggle, but it is doomed. Christ’s death will be fulfilled in the death of evil throughout all nature. His ascension will be fulfilled in the universal diffusion of His Life, Love, and Glory. But He will not make haste. By His long patience, He gives the utmost possibility to the endeavours of evil. In the end, evil powers will work their own confusion and downfall. The Son of God is sure of final victory. He foresees it. The whole field will come about to Him. He will wait for it. In His ascension, all the elements and powers of nature are already glorified. In Him, they have all come back to God, with increase, They are no longer divided and striving. They underwent their grand decisive and bloody sweat in Him. The worst is past. “The restitution of all things” is certain. All things are at peace in Christ, and the peace is wonderful.
“It is finished,” proclaimed the end of the fallen order of nature. “He is risen,” announced the beginning of the new order. Christ glorified is God’s firstfruits of the whole harvest of His recovered creation. All things will be made after the pattern of Christ’s unity. The reconciliation of all things in Him is very Divine. And when the like reconciliation is fulfilled, both in man and nature, the work of the Mediator will be done, and “the mystery of God finished.”
Observe once for all, that whoever speaks merely of the redemption of mankind, mutilates the redemption of God, and is unfaithful to the New Testament. The mystery of God’s will and purpose, which Paul commends to us, is the knitting into unity, the gathering together in one, of “all things in Christ, both the things which are in heaven, and the things which are on earth; even in Him.” The Headship of Christ is universal. Heaven and earth, and “all things” therein, are to be brought under One Head; and thus into the fellowship of a divinely balanced harmony. The whole course of sin and sorrow is His chastisement, which He will bear until it melts into His own Purity and Peace.—John Pulsford.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Ezra 1". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19